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Should I Bathe My Cat? Essential Tips

We know that cats are good at daily grooming, so cat owners may wonder if they need to add bathing to the hygiene routine. The answer is more complex than just a yes or no. Let’s shed some light on common misconceptions about cat bathing.

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Do cats need baths?

You may have heard that cats need regular bathing as dogs do. Or, you might have heard that cats never need bathing because they are self-cleaning. The truth lies somewhere in between these beliefs.

In general, most cats do not need regular bathing as they are quite good at grooming themselves. But there are always exceptions. Cats are individuals and factors like age, breed, behavior, lifestyle, and certain health conditions can affect their ability to groom themselves.

Let’s examine some instances in which your cat may need help grooming.

Outdoor cats

Cats that spend time outdoors may need bathing more than strictly indoor cats. Outdoor cats are more likely to get dirt and debris in their fur, come into contact with chemicals or contaminants, pick up parasites, or have run-ins with wildlife that can get messy.

Senior cats

Older cats, typically around 10 or above, can develop conditions that can affect their mobility, such as arthritis. With painful, arthritic joints, cats can have a much harder time grooming themselves, especially in hard-to-reach areas like their backsides.

Kittens

Kittens, particularly if you’re caring for a litter of orphaned kittens, may need help staying clean. Without a mother to bathe them, this can fall on the human caretaker, especially after feeding or defecating. When dealing with bathing kittens, it’s important to keep them warm and follow your vet’s advice on caring for them.

Chronic health conditions

Like our sweet senior kitties, our feline friends battling illnesses can have difficulty grooming themselves. Cats with chronic illnesses like diabetes, cancer, or kidney disease may not be able to groom themselves properly due to pain or weakness.

Overweight cats

Cats that are obese or just have a bit extra “squish” around their midsections can have difficulty bending or reaching every area of their body to groom. Additional weight can also exacerbate other health conditions, leading to more pain, weakness, and inability to groom, especially in arthritic kitties.

Skin conditions

Cats with certain dermatological conditions, allergies, or parasites often need frequent bathing. Some may even need special medicated shampoos or topical treatments. Skin conditions can require different treatments, so it's important to consult your vet before bathing your cat if you suspect a problem. Make an appointment with your vet if your cat shows signs of a dermatological condition like itching, dryness, redness, inflammation, bumps, or scabs.

Type of breed or fur

Your cat’s breed and/or type of fur (or lack thereof) can contribute to its need for more frequent bathing. Long-haired breeds like Himalayans or Persians can be prone to catching debris in their fur and matting, so they may need help to remain clean and unmatted. On the other end of the spectrum, hairless cats like the Sphynx will also need frequent bathing. In fact, Sphynx cats often need bathing every 1 to 2 weeks due to their exceptionally oily skin.

Accidents and emergencies

Accidents happen no matter how well-behaved your cat is or how much you pet-proof your home. Perhaps your cat rubbed up against a sticky substance, helped themselves to a pot of sauce you left out to cool down, or had some tummy troubles that got into their fur. While pet wipes can help with some messes, they’ll only get you so far, so it’s always a good idea to keep some bathing products on hand for your cat, even if you think they won’t ever need them.

If you have a dog in your household, be careful with mixing up your dog and cat's parasite prevention. One common emergency occurs when pet owners accidentally put canine flea prevention topicals on their cats. This is highly toxic and will require an immediate bath and a phone call to your vet and/or pet poison control.

How to bathe a cat

Bathing your cat will take time, preparation, and, most importantly, patience, especially if it’s the first time. While some owners will luck out with a cat that might be unbothered by a bath, for the most part, the rumors you heard about cats and water are true. Most cats are not fans of being bathed, and they will certainly let you know it — yes, they might yowl and scratch. But there are things that you can do to make the experience less stressful for both you and your cat.

What you’ll need to bathe your cat

Before you bathe your cat, you’ll need to get your supplies in order. Here’s everything you should need.

  • Cat shampoo. Be sure to get a shampoo that is specially formulated for cats. If your cat has a particular skin condition, ask your vet what is safe to use, they may recommend a medicated shampoo. Never use human shampoo or dog shampoo (unless directed by your vet) as these can be irritating or even toxic to cats.
  • Non-slip mat. Adding a non-slip mat to your tub or sink will help your cat feel more comfortable and give them a better grip.
  • Cup or pitcher. Having a cup or pitcher handy can help rinse your cat gently. A showerhead or faucet attachment's sound and water pressure can be frightening for a cat.
  • Toys and treats. Using toys and treats during bath time can help calm anxious kitties and provide positive reinforcement. Tools like a lick mat with some tuna placed on the side of the tub or cat bath toys like robotic swimming fish or floating mice in the water can all provide a more comfortable environment for your cat.
  • Gloves. Wearing gloves can be helpful in certain instances, such as if your cat is heavily soiled with a substance or has had a potty accident. They can also offer some protection against scratches.
  • Towels. Grab a few towels so you have one to place them on after the bath and another to dry.
  • Ear cleaner. Don’t forget about your kitty’s ears at bathtime. Use a cat-safe ear cleaner with cotton balls to gently wipe away debris from the ears. Never use cotton swabs or stick anything in the ear canal.

Cat bath tips and tricks

Ready to start the bathing process? Here are some tips and tricks to help you and your cat get through it.

  • Cat bath basics. Use lukewarm water and add only a few inches of water to the tub or sink. You don’t want to submerge your cat in water. Just use enough to gently wet, shampoo, and rinse it.
  • Play beforehand. Tiring your cat a little with their favorite toy or playing chase the mouse, feather, etc., can be a great way to burn off excess energy before bathtime.
  • Prebath grooming ritual. Before getting into the bath, brush your cat's hair to remove excess fur or debris and trim their nails (if necessary) to help grip and reduce scratching.
  • Introduce the bath slowly. Take some time to introduce your cat to the water — use those toys and treats to get them comfortable. It’s essential to go slow and not just “throw” your cat in the water. Once they are comfortable (or tolerable), you can begin shampooing and rinsing.
  • Incorporate calming aids. Pheromone diffusers or sprays like Feliway and playing some calming music may help calm anxious kitties during bathtime. If your cat has severe anxiety around baths, talk to your vet about prescription calming medications.
  • Use the buddy system. If possible, a second pair of hands can also be helpful when bathing your cat. But only if it's someone your cat is familiar with. Don’t add to the potential stress of a bath by adding a stranger to the mix. If you have a friend or family member your cat is fond of, invite them to help.

How often should you bathe a cat?

Every cat may be different in how often it needs bathing. Some cats, especially if strictly kept indoors, may rarely need a bath unless they get into something or have a potty accident on their fur. Outdoor and long-haired cats may need bathing once a month or whenever they get dirty. Cats with certain health conditions, especially skin conditions, may need frequent bathing with medicated products (as directed by their veterinarian).

While some cats need bathing more often than others, it’s also essential not to over-bathe. Bathing too often can strip natural oils from your cat’s skin and lead to dryness and irritation. One of the exceptions to this is hairless cats like the Sphynx; they have oily skin and need weekly or biweekly baths.

If you’re unsure about how often your cat may need bathing, or if they need it at all — consult your veterinarian or groomer.

How to clean a cat without bathing them

If you're looking to extend your cat’s time in between baths or help keep them from needing them, there are some things you can do.

  • Pet wipes. Using cat-safe pet wipes to remove excess oils and debris can help keep your cat clean. Be sure the wipes are marked as cat-safe or cat-specific. Some pet wipes are formulated to be safe for both cats and dogs, and some are species-specific. Never use dog or human wipes on cats, as they can be toxic.
  • Waterless shampoo. A little bit of waterless shampoo and a damp washcloth can go a long way in helping clean your cat without an actual bath. Be sure to use only a waterless shampoo specially formulated for cats. Never use dog or human waterless shampoos (unless directed by your vet).
  • Routine grooming. While most cats are pretty good at grooming, routine brushing can also help keep your cat’s coat clean and healthy. Brushing helps remove excess hair and debris and prevent matting. Some cats, especially older, long-haired breeds, may also benefit from receiving sanitary trims at the vet or groomer, which involve trimming the hair around their backsides.
  • Parasite prevention. Keeping up-to-date with your cat’s parasite prevention will help keep fleas and ticks at bay, which keeps their skin healthy and reduces the need for baths. If your cat is not on any parasite preventatives, talk to your vet about options.

These few small additions to your cat’s routine can help keep them safe, healthy, and out of the bathtub!

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